University student Vlada Yushchenko was still in her teens and nearly three months pregnant when she hugged her husband at the border, turned away and walked into Moldova.
Now she is in Romania, one of the millions of Ukrainians forced to flee Russia’s invasion. Her baby, Daniel, was born there eight months ago and still hasn’t met his father Yaroslav, who is 21 and, like most men of fighting age, prohibited from leaving Ukraine.
“Nobody expected the war was coming and that we weren’t going to be together,” said Yushchenko, who has settled for now in the central Romanian city of Brasov where she gave birth and shares a two-room apartment with Daniel, her mother, and her terminally ill grandmother.
The young family’s forced separation is an all-too-common story among the estimated 110,000 Ukrainian refugees in Romania — nearly all of them women and children.
“For a long time we couldn’t let each other go,” said Yushchenko, 19, recalling the couple’s separation at the border. “We really didn’t want this, but at the same time we understood that we have to do this for mine and the baby’s health and to be safe.”
As the war drags into its second year, the lack of physical contact between the baby and his father, a computer programming student in Kyiv, rankles. Still, their smartphones allow the family a sense of connection.
“Sometimes we burst out in tears (but) we are very happy when we see each other on video,” Yushchenko said. “I called (Yaroslav) and sent a photo as soon as I was able to” the day Daniel was born, she added. “It was very emotional, he was very happy, it was unforgettable.”
But even that virtual link is not always there.
In recent months, Russian strikes have targeted critical energy infrastructure across large swathes of Ukraine, which has at times made communication difficult. Yaroslav tries to ease her concerns, Yushchenko said, by warning her of potential outages and telling her not to panic during moments of silence.
Still, seeing footage of the war play out in Ukraine, and knowing her husband is there, only adds to her worries.
“It’s very hard to watch the news and see all the misery, the missile strikes, the deaths,” said Yushchenko, who between taking care of the baby continues her mathematics and physics studies remotely at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. “I pray every day that everything will be alright … in the city where (Yaroslav) lives and in general.”
Her faith, among other things, is helping her through the ordeal.
When Daniel was six months old she decided to get him baptized at a local Orthodox church, by a priest who lives in their apartment block and waived the customary fee for the ceremony. They attend Sunday service whenever they can, Yushchenko said.
In her day-to-day life, she often takes “very long walks, sometimes all day” with Daniel around Brasov, a picturesque heritage city nestled in the arching Carpathian mountains. She also sees other Ukrainian mothers living locally who she says she can talk to about babies and motherhood.
Since the war started, more than eight million Ukrainians have fled to other European countries, in the greatest exodus of refugees the continent has seen since World War II.
More than 4,000 have registered with Brasov’s Migrant Integration Center, according to Astrid Hamberger, founder of the nongovernmental organization that has helped many of them, including Yushchenko’s family, find homes, medical care and social assistance.
“I feel safe here … we receive a lot of help, which I’m very grateful for,” said Yushchenko, who hopes Ukraine wins the war so they can go home and finally be together as a family — and Daniel can meet his father.
“It will be an unforgettable meeting, our child is our happiness,” she said.
When asked what she prays for at the church in Brasov, Yushchenko does not hesitate to answer.
“I pray for the health of my family and friends and for a peaceful sky in our country,” she said, “and ask for the strength to bear all this.”